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Madison Hinrichs reacts with surprise to the announcement that she will receive a scholarship worth $30,000 to the University of Montana. 

TOM BAUER, Missoulian

The University of Montana Foundation hit another fundraising record – $53.67 million for the 2016 fiscal year – inching past the previous record of $53.66 million in 2014.

"People believe in UM and in its future – you can see this by their continued support," said Shane Giese, president and CEO of the UM Foundation, in a statement in the Thursday announcement. "We hope this news will motivate and inspire continued giving to our great university."

The UM Foundation has exceeded its fundraising goal set in 2013 by pulling in more than $50 million for three years in a row, the release said. It is putting more money toward scholarships to help students pay for higher education in times when it's harder for students and families to afford tuition.

However, UM – and Montana State University – have each accepted substantial donations that have caused controversy over the past couple of years because the money is tied to naming a public asset.

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In 2013, the UM Foundation set a goal to raise $45 million for scholarships through the Investing in Student Success Initiative, according to the news release. It reached the goal a year early – and then surpassed it.

"Thanks to sustained support from committed donors, the organization has exceeded that fundraising goal by 37 percent, raising a total of $62 million," the news release said.

Before the initiative, the foundation gave $3.16 million in scholarships to students, some 2,011 awards to 1,597 individuals in the 2012-2013 school year.

By comparison, the foundation is giving out $5.2 million in scholarships and fellowships this school year, some 2,648 scholarships to 2,054 students.

"Making a university education affordable is one of our top priorities," said Thomas Crady, UM vice president for enrollment and student affairs, in a statement. "Nothing is more important to ensure access."

Donors understand that students are struggling to pay for school, even at an affordable university such as UM, said the foundation's Kate Stober. The donations can help keep in Montana topnotch students who might have large scholarship offers to go elsewhere.

This year, the largest gift came from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation for $1.5 million for a program at the College of Education and Human Sciences, Stober said.

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Some of the largest gifts to the flagship schools come with controversial naming rights.

This May, the Montana Board of Regents approved an $8 million gift from Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte and his wife, Susan Gianforte, to rename the MSU computer science department in Bozeman the Gianforte School of Computing.

In response, many students protested the Gianfortes' support for an organization identified as a hate group against people who are LGBTQ. Three Democratic legislators also said they would introduce a bill in 2017 to bar naming gifts after candidates.

In May 2015, the regents approved renaming the UM School of Law after Alexander Blewett III for a $10 million gift from Alexander and Andrea Blewett. The donation is one of the largest gifts from individuals in UM's history.

At the time, Regent Marthy Sheehy, a lawyer from Billings, praised the generosity – but protested the lack of public participation in the process, citing Montana open government laws.

"If we're going to sell the name over the door, the public has a right to be at the table," Sheehy said at the time.

At the May meeting this year, Regent Bob Nystuen suggested revisiting naming policies, saying large gifts should be times for celebration, not controversy. The item did not appear on the regents' summer agenda, the only meeting since.

Stober said Thursday the UM Foundation didn't have any gifts this year that named buildings or schools and colleges. A donor who has supported the renovation of the Liberal Arts building on campus has the right to name a couple of rooms in the building, but she said that level of renaming doesn't require approval by the regents.

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Reporter for the Missoulian